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2 June, 2013  ▪  Michael Binyon

British Colonial Past: It's Payback Time

Britain has opened a way for people from former British colonies such as Kenya, Cyprus and Aden to claim compensation for tortures and detainment during its colonial rule

Britain has just announced that it is to pay around £14 million (17 million euros) in compensation to more than 5,000 elderly Kenyans who were detained and tortured by the British colonial authorities during the insurgency against British rule in the 1950s. William Hague, the British Foreign Secretary, also expressed his abhorrence at what happened more than 50 years ago, and acknowledged the "pain and grievances" felt by Kenyans who suffered abuse. Britain is to fund the building of a memorial in Nairobi to victims of torture and will pay all the legal expenses of the elderly survivors who have spent years trying to force Britain to admit its responsibility for its harsh tactics used against them during British colonial rule.

The case opens the way for people from other former British colonies to claim compensation, especially people from Cyprus, Aden (now Yemen) and Palestine who fought long guerrilla wars against the colonial rulers. It also has forced Britain to look again at its colonial record. A debate has begun on whether the former Empire was as peaceful or benevolent as most Britons believe it was. Almost all Britain's extensive colonies in Africa and Asia achieved independence after the Second World War, especially in the 1960s, but argument has raged ever since on whether the British Empire brought progress and prosperity or whether it was purely an exploitative empire that imposed white rule on countries longing for independence.

For years Britain refused to acknowledge that it had used torture against the members of Mau Mau, a rebellion that broke out in Kenya in the 1950s, led by the dominant Kikuyu tribe. The rebels launched a campaign of slaughter and intimidation of white settlers, and in response the colonial authorities rounded up and imprisoned thousands of Mau Mau supporters. Some say they were repeatedly beaten by the African guards in detention camps on the orders of local British administrators. One elderly survivor claims that he was castrated. Britain has consistently denied wrongdoing, saying that abuses occurred on both sides. It also long denied that any records still existed. But when three survivors launched a court case in London a few years ago, The Times revealed that the archives containing damning evidence of mistreatment of prisoners were still in existence, hidden in a secret Foreign Office store.

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Mr Hague immediately ordered all the records to be made public, allowing them to be used in the court case. This led to a notable victory for the survivors. Hague refused to issue a formal apology or accept that compensation should automatically be paid. "We don't agree that, as a principle, the British taxpayers, generations on, should be held liable for what happened under colonial administations in the 20th century," he said. But he offered to pay damages to those who had suffered personal injury and losses from torture, mistreatment or forced labour. Kenyans are delighted that he has come close to an apology, and there was widespread rejoicing in Nairobi at the verdict.

The case makes an interesting comparison with the way other European nations have dealt with the allegations of mistreatment of their colonial subjects in the last century. The British Empire was once the largest in the world, at one time comprising almost a quarter of the globe's population. With a few exceptions, this Empire was dismantled without widespread violence, and power was handed over peacefully to the many new independent nations. This stands in marked contrast to the wars fought by the French in Vietnam and Algeria or the Portuguese in Africa. And the Russians have made no offer to pay compensation for Stalin's crimes or to disclose all the documents on torture and abuses in former Soviet republics that are now independent countries.

The Mau Mau rebellion meant very different things to different participants. To Africans it was, variously, a fight for political self-government, an inter-generational feud, a battle for land and a Kikuyu tribal rebellion. In the eyes of Kenya's white settlers it was a barbaric assault on civilised values, carried out by bloodthirsty savages. Viewed from London it was an illegal terrorist campaign and a threat to legitimate British colonial rule. 

The British government clung to this interpretation for more than half a century, insisting that the "Emergency", as it was officially known, had been subdued firmly but fairly. The wall of denial had lasted for more than half a century, but collapsed under the weight of historical evidence. More than 100,000 Kenyans, many of whom had no connection whatever to the revolt, were "processed" through concentration camps across the country, where they were subjected to sustained abuse, including beatings, rapes and even castration. Much of the violence was perpetrated by African guards. But it was carried out under British orders, and senior officials were aware of what was going on. "If we are to sin, we must sin quietly," said the British Attorney-General of the Kenyan colonial government.

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Some people will see Britain's admission of brutality as a defeat and a stain on the record of the Empire. It will certainly spark new interest in an era which most Britons no longer remember. What was once an empire stretching across the globe is now no more than 14 tiny islands and territories which are not independent because they are too small and economically weak to exist as separate states on their own. 
The links between Britain and its former colonies still survive in the form of the Commonwealth - an association of 53 English-speaking countries which were almost all once former colonies, and which have decided to remain in friendly association with their former ruler. The Queen is the head of the Commonwealth, and takes this role very seriously, always travelling to the host nation to open the summit of all the Commonwealth leaders once every two years. Only two former British possessions, Ireland and Burma, decided not to become members of the Commonwealth. And three African nations have joined even though they were not former British colonies - Mozambique, Rwanda and Cameroon (which was divided between British and French rule in colonial days). 

Some nations, populated largely by settlers from Britain such as Australia, Canada and New Zealand, still have a very close attachment to Britain, and indeed still acknowledge the Queen as their own head of state. Interest in most of the former Empire has faded, however - although there remains a huge nostalgia for the Raj, the British rule in India. India was by far the largest, most important and most challenging former colony over which Britain ruled for 250 years. The beginning of the end of the Empire came in 1947, when Britain withdrew, and India was divided, with bloody communal clashes between the new Muslim state of Pakistan and the remnant of India. 

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Only now can historians look back objectively on Britain's long colonial history. In recent years dozens of books have been published on imperial history, television programmes have focused on the British Empire, museums have been set up showing aspects of life, good and bad, under British rule. The emotions of the time have faded, however. Only now, perhaps, can politicians from Britain and from the former colonies talk to each other without guilt on the British side and rancour on the other. It used to be said in the 1960s and 1970s that "Britain has lost an empire but not yet found a role". Nowadays many Britons are proud of the legacy they have left across the world - especially the role of the English language. Revelations of the dismal record in Kenya has dented that pride. But as many British politicians have remarked, today's apology for past abuses sets the historical record straight. And an apology is more than most other imperial powers have ever made for their own record of rule in other parts of the world.

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